Talking to Your Students about Grad School

I don’t know about you, but I regularly get students coming to see me, wanting advice about whether or not they should go to grad school. And I’m not talking about the “are my grades good enough” conversation. I’m talking about the “I’ve heard mixed things about it, and I was hoping you could tell me about your experience” conversation. My internal monologue is usually akin to one of those angry op-eds in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how grad school is a meat grinder and then everyone ends up as an adjunct on food stamps anyway. But you can’t say that to an intellectually eager undergrad. Or rather, you can say that – and many people do – but it’s not particularly productive. People aren’t usually going to listen to something that polemical, and even if they could be convinced to steer clear of grad school, bright minds should probably be encouraged to explore their potential. So instead of railing about how bad an idea it is, I try to go over the pros and cons, and end with a little advice. Here’s what I tell my students:


[If I went with my gut reaction, I would send this meme to any students who were graduate-school bound]

You get the intellectual freedom to ask questions that you would never otherwise get to ask, and the time with which to answer those questions in fascinating detail.
I stole this from a colleague who welcomed me to Queen’s, and it’s pretty self-explanatory. No other experience will allow you to ask the types of questions you’re going to ask in grad school and then attempt to answer them.  I say attempt, because one of the first things you learn doing a graduate degree, is that there are no completely right answers. You’re ideas are merely a series of revisions, and you’re doing it right if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of it all. Even if you do come to a conclusion that you are satisfied with, others are still going to challenge you, but it’s worth it nonetheless, and you will have amassed a wealth of factual and theoretical knowledge that few others possess.

You see the world and meet some great people.
This is less true of M.A. students, but definitely applies to doctoral candidates. Since your job is to think, you do eventually need to share those thoughts through publication and conference presentations. This means that once you wet you’re feet, you’ll often go to one international conference a year. Different fields hold their conferences in different places – unfortunately, as a North American scholar of British history, mine are usually somewhere in the US or the UK and never anywhere tropical or exotic – but there will always be an element of travel.  The first time you do this, you will feel like the new kid at school, but you’ll quickly develop networks and meet some of the greatest minds in your field. Some of these people will be horrible human beings, but the others will be the most amazing individuals you will ever come across. And conference experiences are nothing compared to the places you will go and the people you will meet while doing your research.

There are almost no professorial jobs. No, really, I mean that.
I know that everyone theoretically knows this, but I’m going to say it again. And I’m going to do so because you need to understand that you will not be the exception, and you will not beat the odds. I know it’s tempting to fall into a mindset that conjures up the American dream, where if you’re good enough and you work hard enough, it will all pay off. But that’s just not true. The professorial job market is a lottery, and you should approach it as you approach gambling. Imagine that you are walking into a casino. If you are there to have a good time, and you walk in with limited expectations and behavioral boundaries, you may well have the time of your life. But if you think you’re the one who’s going to win big and are willing to risk it all in order to do so, very bad things likely await you in the future.

It’s isolating and it will be one of the hardest things you ever do.
Again, this is more applicable to doing a PhD, but it’s one of the things most students don’t realize. Up until graduate school, you spend a lot of time in classes, and this provides a natural support structure. But in grad school, even if you do have classes, they are probably only once a week. And once you finish your course work, you’re on your own.  At that point, it’s up to you to create networks that will get you through 4-7 years in grad school (the kind of networks that serve both a social and intellectual function). You will read more than you ever thought possible, but you will seldom have someone to discuss that reading with. And when something goes wrong in your private life, there is no one who sees you on a daily basis and who is going to notice that you aren’t yourself and step in on their own. You are going to need to ask for help when you need it.  It’s true, you will have a supervisor, but this person will not always be there regularly – every supervisor is different, and some will be extremely involved while others will be entirely absent. And don’t forget, you have to travel. As I said, there are some really great things about doing this, but it will also remove you from your friends, family, and spouse for what can sometimes be an extended period of time. You therefore need to consider if this is a sacrifice that you’re willing to make.

[Yes, you will have this problem in grad school too]

It still matters if you’re a woman.
I hate that I have to say this, but I do. And again, I preface my remarks with the caveat that your experience will be highly dependent on your field. Some fields, like English, have a lot of women in them; others, like Philosophy, are notorious for being old boy’s clubs. I’m a historian, and we have a pretty good gender balance as a discipline, but the women are still concentrated in gender and culture studies. Thus, as someone who studies a topic with a political bent, I would be lying if I said I didn’t notice that when I walk into a panel at a conference, I’m usually one of about 3 women in a room full of 40 dudes.  So yeah, if you’re a girl, you need to be aware that you might find the experience a little alienating. And even if you are surrounded by other women, you’re still going to notice that the hours demanded of you aren’t conducive to having a family. While some of your male counterparts will struggle with the same issues, in general, this hits women harder and grad school will delay your ability to have a family and/or having a family will make extra demands of you in grad school. As a profession, we’re working on this. But the battle is hardly won.

Treat it like a 4-7 year job, after which you will do something else.
This is some very good advice that I pilfered from my best friend. Nowadays very few people have a single career anymore anyway, so it’s probably best if you approach grad school as something that you’re going to do for the next 4-7 years, and not the preface to a professorial career. This is important for several reasons. Most obviously, it will help you avoid falling into the trap of feeling like a failure if you can’t get (or don’t want) a tenure-track job when you’re done. But equally important, it will make you smarter about how you approach grad school in the first place. If you know that this is just something you’re going to be doing for a little while, you’ll make sure that you don’t take on a heavy debt load in order to do it, and you’ll come out the other end in a better financial state (if still slightly impoverished). You will also be more receptive to pursuing  other interests while you’re there, and your life will be more balanced as a result. And I’m not just talking about romance – I’m talking about seizing opportunities to edit journals, organize conferences, blog, etc… There are healthy ways of getting through grad school, but you need to go in with your eyes open. If you can’t do that, then no, don’t go.


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